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To Jonathan Reynolds: a better vision is possible

Dear Jonathan Reynolds,

I am pleased to see you argue for an end to the savings-test on Universal Credit. As you say, this results in unfair situations where a person “can make significant [financial] contributions to the system and find that actually, you’re not really eligible for any major support if you need it”. It is unfair that a person who has managed to save money then finds that they can only access unemployment support for six months. When the reason for needing an income replacement is the same, then the pay-out from the government should be the same; and it should be enough to live off.

I agree that there ‘is an argument’ that those who pay in more should get out more; it is of course counter-acted by arguments that it is not for the state to sustain richer people in luxury lifestyles, but only to provide in times of unemployment the income that everyone needs to get by. I consider this argument to outweigh the former, and think it is one worth publicly making. The government should commit to an adequate level of income replacement during periods of income loss due to unemployment, and this should be available to everyone as of right, for as long as the income loss continues. This is the argument that I think should be made – not pitting richer against poorer people, but bringing everyone together; not giving some more or less than others, but the same to anyone in the same situation of need.

Our current income-replacement benefits are indeed draconian. This is not merely Victorian, but goes back as far as the Elizabethan era and likely even further. It resurged in the 1970s and 1980s as governments switched away from full employment and towards blaming the unemployed for their lack of work – even though worklessness is inevitable when governments do not fulfill their responsibility to their citizens to ensure work for all. It is now a thoroughly modern attitude typically associated with those who are right-wing economically and regrettably present in the Labour government of 1997-2010.

The irony is that Britain has a strong work culture, especially among the poor. People who are too sick to work and people whose only experience of work is of toxic, low-pay, insecure work retain strong and tenacious commitments to work despite their experiences of harm in the workplace. Young adults growing up in areas of deprivation and disadvantage, looked down upon by their teachers, and given no hope of a meaningful career continue to place high value on paid employment and want to work.

A sensible government would make use of this commitment through a Job Guarantee, utilising people’s desire to work to improve local communities and the environment, and paying a wage instead of benefits. Indeed for the same average benefit pay-out, we could have unemployed people working 21 hours a week in their local community and still have time for job-search, instead of a meaningless 35 hours looking for work that largely does not exist or, if it does, returns them to the unemployment pool within a year. The gains to society could be huge, for no more cost than the current system.

I am pleased to read that you are dissatisfied with the current Work Capability Assessment and imagine that you will also be dissatisfied with Personal Independence Payment. I and others have spent the last ten years researching the problems with the WCA and PIP, and looking into alternative systems that could actually work. I would be delighted to discuss these with you and to work with you to develop replacements. It is vital that sick and disabled people are included in the entire design process, and not merely invited in to provide some comments. It would be appropriate to bring us in as paid consultants, showcasing how sick and disabled people can be brought into the workplace in manners that work for them, and demonstrating Labour’s commitment to paying people a due recompense for their labour.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Stef Benstead


For further reading, please see:

Second Class Citizens (2019) Stef Benstead

Poverty and Insecurity (2012) Shildrick et al

Disconnected Youth? (2005) MacDonald and Marsh

Benefits calculated as average £94/week Universal Credit, £100/wk Housing Benefit/element and £15/wk Council Tax Support. Job Guarantee calculated as £10/hour. A Job Guarantee would only be for those able to work, so a system would still be needed for distinguishing people who have reduced capacity for work due to illness or disability. Carers would be paid as part of the Job Guarantee, giving carers currently on Carer's Allowance an income of £350/week and allowing carers who care for fewer hours to claim income for their caring.

A Job Guarantee can be run alongside Universal Basic Income, acting as a guaranteed top-up for those who can and want to work, and for whom UBI is inadequate to live off.

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